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Santa Fe's Most Wanted

Is the justice system working?

August 11, 2010, 1:00 am

Late last month, 20-year-old Erica Valdez of Española spent eight days in the Santa Fe County jail over a ticket for “throwing [a] soda can out [the] rear window” of her Nissan Altima.

SFR failed to reach Valdez. The courts couldn’t reach her either. Whatever the reason, her inaccessibility grew a $50 fine into a $411 fine, which she paid off through jail time served at the equivalent of minimum wage.

Chief Magistrate Court Judge David Segura stresses that defendants are sent multiple warnings before a warrant gets issued. Usually, those warnings are sent to the address on the original citation, which is most often the address printed on the defendant’s driver’s license—which, often as not these days, is several moves out-of-date.

“There is a law saying you have to keep it up-to-date. I’m not sure anyone follows it,” the AOC’s Weinstein says. (Weinstein herself once nearly got a ticket for having failed to update her address with the state Motor Vehicles Division.)

Anecdotally, Judge Yalman says it seems like 90 percent of the Municipal Court’s outgoing mail comes back undelivered—an exaggeration, admittedly, but not by much. The AOC’s success rate for jury summons has swung wildly from quarter to quarter, between 28 and 87 percent in a recent fiscal year. Presumably, defendants are harder to get a hold of than prospective jurors who, although inconvenienced, at least get paid for showing up to court.

The New Mexico Supreme Court instructs judges to issue warrants when defendants fail to appear or to pay fines, but leaves it up to lower courts whether and how to warn defendants about an impending bench warrant.

According to a New Mexico Judicial Education Center handbook for municipal and magistrate court judges, bench warrants should be issued for past-due fines only after the court has made “reasonable efforts to collect.”

So what constitutes a “reasonable” effort? Opinions differ. Anyone who’s been on a credit card company’s bad side knows corporate America doesn’t merely mail a few letters when it wants to collect $50.

But banks and private collections agencies have one powerful tool New Mexico’s courts lack: Computers. The police and court systems here are drowning in paper.

Santa Fe city police representatives, again, failed to return SFR’s calls. For his part, County Sheriff Solano says only five of approximately 90 deputies have the technology to transmit tickets electronically to the courts; the other 85 write them by hand and file them with the office’s lone data entry clerk to enter into the agency’s computers; the clerk then sends the paper copies to the courts.

“The more hands it goes through, the more chances for error there are,” Solano says.

The paper maze thickens in the courts. In Yalman’s Municipal Court office, for instance, stacks of files spill over every horizontal surface, and lean ponderously off a shelf. In Magistrate Court, files are often missing crucial documents, and sometimes get lost entirely.

The escalation of Valdez’ littering citation illustrates how the Magistrate Court, with its old-fashioned methods, handles a hard-to-find defendant.

According to the court docket, police cited Valdez for littering in August 2009. A full five months later, she was sent a criminal summons, ordering her to appear in court on Feb. 27, 2010. The day before her court date, Valdez’ summons came back as undelivered mail.

Another summons was issued and, on March 23, Magistrate Judge Richard Padilla issued a bench warrant for her failure to appear. The following day, the state Motor Vehicles Division suspended Valdez’ license, which she may or may not have known.

On April 29—at which point Judge Segura took over Valdez’ case—a local police officer served her warrant. She spent that night in jail.

The next morning, she pleaded guilty to her charges, and agreed to pay $411 in fines for the initial littering violation plus court fees.

On May 30, according to the court, Valdez missed her first payment. Two weeks later, her failure to pay led to the issuance of yet another bench warrant.

On the evening of July 22, the Española Police Department arrested Valdez. Santa Fe County jailers released her from custody on July 30.

Valdez may have blown several chances to make good. But though her time has been served, her name was not immediately cleared: As of Aug. 5, the electronic docket did not reflect her latest arrest and release from jail—suggesting, potentially, that she could still be stopped and taken in over the bench warrant and fines she’d just paid through jail time.

The incomplete file also suggests, according to AOC Deputy Director Patrick Simpson, that “Erica could have been in jail a lot longer” had the AOC’s Pacheco, who is also serving as interim Santa Fe Magistrate Court manager, not been actively checking the inmates booked into county jail.

Criminal lawyers, police and judges share a common plight. Against the general public’s relentless campaign of bad behavior, there are the authorities’ often-futile attempts to bring order.

To hear some authorities tell it, jailing speeders who miss court appointments may be society’s only bulwark against anarchy.

“I don’t know about you, but I’ve never forgotten court,” Randall Van Vleck, a lawyer for the New Mexico Municipal League who helps train judges around the state, tells SFR. “I have little sympathy for that [excuse], frankly. A lot of people are like, ‘Well, it’s animal control. It’s my dog pooping on someone’s yard. I’m not going to court over that.’ If everyone felt that way about every crime, we’d have complete lawlessness.”

And yet detaining non-criminal offenders strikes many as excessive.

“We’ve been very concerned about anybody doing jail time who doesn’t need to be there—particularly over things like failure to appear, where people spend more time in jail than on the original charge,” Dangler, the public defender, says.

Expecting college-educated adults with calendars and cell phones to make appointments and understand legalese is one thing. Expecting disenfranchised people with “disintegrating lives” to meet those obligations, Dangler says, is quite another.

“I understand the frustration of the magistrate judges—it’s like herding cats,” Dangler says. “A lot of my clients, their lives are a mess—and we give them more things to do. We give them more busy work, more appointments, and they’re already proving to us that they can’t handle those things.”

Beyond the particulars of any one case, there are bigger concerns. Such as, does jailing non-criminal offenders serve any greater good?

Recall those 66 people jailed over nothing more than unpaid Magistrate Court traffic fines, and consider: Only 59 Magistrate Court defendants paid their fines through community service in the last year.

In other words, the system pushes more people into jail than it commits to public service.

“The purpose of a citation is not to be punitive, but rather to correct behavior,” Judge Segura says. “That’s the position I take in this court.”

Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence that such strict punishments are improving people’s behavior, as intended. “I don’t know if we’re getting people to drive better by throwing them in jail or not,” Judge Yalman says.

Even some police say current warrant policies may be too unforgiving.

“A lot of times, people just ignore it and think it’s no big deal…[but] there probably is a percentage of people who just cannot afford to take off work,” Sheriff Solano says.

Speaking of affordability: Can local governments continue spending $800 trying to collect $400 in fines?

“If you’ve got a guy bombing down St. Francis at 70 miles per hour, he’s creating a quantifiable [financial] risk,” the AOC’s Simpson says. “It might be worth 800 bucks to get him to stop.”

No one pretends that the current approach to justice in Santa Fe adds up financially. Indeed, with the Great Recession wreaking havoc on budgets at all levels of government, it may be money that finally forces change.
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